Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Zen and the Art of Exercise: Find Yourself

"Before Enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After Enlightenment; chop wood, carry water." - Zen Proverb

I want to apologize for taking so long between posts. The shenanigans of a very busy weekend occupied my time, and I was largely disconnected and off the grid for several days. This is an extreme rarity for me. Ultimately this has allowed me to meditate on the idea of Zen and Working Out. Hopefully it pays off in this post.

Over the last week I have finally been able to work out at about 90% capacity. Saturday morning I ran the Irish Jig 5k in Ludington. I finished with a time of 26:19, nearly ten minutes faster than my run last Saint Patrick in my first ever 5k. Today was the first Crossfit workout in two months that I truly felt like my hip and back didn't hold me back. Both of these bring me some level of joy.

Now what does any of this have to do with Zen principles? Congratulations, Sean, you were able to work out. It felt good. This is no new revelation. You enjoy the pain and controlled chaos that a workout brings. Old story. We get it.

Reread the Zen Proverb up above. Be persistent. Do whatever it takes. Once you have found it, keep going. In short, Zen can be described as understanding. It is a state of acceptance. Accepting the world for what it is. Knowing the only thing you have control of is you and everything else simply is. It does no good to fret over the things that are beyond our control. I keep talking about a journey. Hopefully I haven't worn out my precious few readers, but I have certainly been fairly exhaustive on the topic.

Ultimately I believe we are all in the process of becoming; becoming who we are meant to be and reaching an understand and an acceptance of it. Crossfit and exercise became an outlet for me. The gym and the streets became my avenues for change. I found a way to escape so much of what I disliked about me in a very personal, very physical outlet. Results were obvious. Anyone could see what I saw in the mirror, and I was certainly not short on confidence. Accepting myself became easier. But I had not really accepted myself.

Going to the gym was huge, but there was a part of me that got left behind. That part of me was no small part of who I am. I am a nerd. Call it what you like - nerd, geek, dweeb, etc. When I was so focussed on the gym, I left everything from my old life behind. Going to the gym was carrying water. The problem was I had forgotten to continue to chop wood. for years I had worked to develop my personality. I learned to chop wood throughout my life - to work tirelessly to develop myself on the inside. Wood chopping was the content of my character. When I began to carry water, I forgot that I would still need wood. I couldn't heat the house or maintain myself without wood. My thirst was certainly quenched, and I felt good until the winter came.

Winter came, both in actuality and symbolically at the same time. With the onset of winter came the onset of my worst injury. This was fortunate, because I could no longer go to the gym. Carrying water was no longer an option for me. I had to collect wood. I began to heat the house again and warm my soul. Slowly I could return to the gym. Now I had to take it easy. It was time to play a delicate balancing act. Through this, I found myself. I realized that to maintain me, I had to both collect wood and carry water.

In the darkness, I found the light. That light was within me, but I had dampened the light. When I opened the world to myself, I could once again shine out. To many people my darkness was obvious. It was tangible. It was foreboding, threatening and horrible. I came to accept that I have more facets than I thought. All of them essential. All of them beautiful. By letting the light shine all of my personality was able to escape. Zen is, to me, the art of acceptance and balance. Without accepting myself for all that I am I will never be truly happy. I have learned to accept that. For today I have found understanding, through this journey I will continue to become. I will never simply be.

Here's to becoming.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Everything's Zen: Start Your Journey on the Inside

"We  cannot be happy if we expect to live all the time at the highest peak of intensity.  Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance and order and rhythm and harmony."  ~Thomas Merton

Somehow I have stumbled in to finding my happiness. This is purely by no fault of my own, as I have tried hard to derail my own progress and let my thoughts get clouded by all manners of distraction. I have had several conversations recently about how I have improved, what really drove me to find myself, and how I managed to accomplish everything. It has truly been a journey of starting, stopping, and restarting. Over the last few weeks the journey changed again. What had been an all out sprint towards the finish became an journey of understanding the most important thing in my life - me.

At some point on this journey it finally settled in. I had changed. Something was different. Perhaps it took being injured. Maybe it took some direct words from some dear friends. Writing may have spurned the steps towards a more introspective lifestyle, but whatever it was the change in trajectory has resulted in changes I hadn't expected. This time the change didn't show up in the mirror. Other people noticed something long before I did.

I faced a very emotional struggle when I lost the ability to workout on the level I had been. My outlet for mental and emotional stress had been cut off. I found myself fighting depression, anger, and a whole range of less than positive emotions. People would ask what was wrong. My answers were short and very disconnected. It became easier to distance myself from people. On the inside I wondered if I could maintain the physical improvements I had made over the last year if I couldn't go to the gym. Fear set in. What if I fell back in to the same lifestyle that I had worked so hard to get out of?

This was a sign of something else that needed to change. While there had been a lot of exterior change, mentally I had not caught up with myself. At times I may have appeared confident. I looked like I was put together, but in the most important area I was still unsure of who I had become. There was a part of myself that I was afraid to be. Even worse, I was afraid that if I was not completely over the top that other people may catch me in an act. Inner peace still eluded me. The change I was still looking for was finally accepting me for who I had become.

I spent a lot of time trying to show the world that I had changed. Why would I need a cheerleader? No one was better at talking about how great I had become than me. Defending myself was easy, and it was something I often felt the need to do. Snappy comebacks and sharp criticisms gave me an edge. In short, I had learned to become and asshole. Most 'nice guys' will tell you that assholes finish first. Those of us who are or were self described nice guys eventually get tired of having people take advantage of our good nature.

Now that I had improved the outside, I had learned to not let people take advantage of me. The pendulum had swung from nice guy straight to asshole. While people were responding better to me, it was because they thought I had become more confident. Several people were able to see through it, and to those people I had become a narcissistic jerk. Once I got injured, I took a body blow to my confidence. Through that, I was forced in to a period of introspection.

In losing myself, I was able to find myself. By stepping away from the path I had intended to take, I found myself on the journey to truly find me. I learned to be comfortable in my own skin. I no longer had to distract other people from the person that is on the inside, rather I have learned simply to be. My day starts and ends with me, which on the surface sounds so selfish. How can I be anything for anyone else if I can't first be confident with who I am. In many ways I have learned to step away from the glitz and the glamour of every day life. Taking time for me has been essential, and what had once appeared as confidence was replaced by true confidence.

Over the next few posts I am going to wander down a slightly different path on the importance of finding one's self. Call it the spiritual side of my journey if you like, a sort of zen introspection. I will talk about the importance of exercise, sleep and healthier eating. Writing has been important. Simply taking care of myself and not forgetting to think about what happens on the inside has provided a whole new level of understanding myself. I hope that my journey continues to help others to remember to take care of the inside as well as the outside.

Friday, March 8, 2013

You're Good Enough: You have to kiss a lot of Princes to Find a Frog

I feel that this blog needs a disclaimer. First off, this isn't a shameless 'date me' plug. I'm not saying that I am either a Prince or a Frog, but at times I can be both the good and bad in each. Also, the spirit of this blog came from a brief conversation with a friend, and I am not stating that any individual in particular has a less than ideal self image, but in the cascading thoughts in my head this three month old conversation has played in to other thoughts I have had. And for the sake of consistency of writing, I will keep referring to the concept of a Prince, but assume that these concepts can apply to anyone, regardless of gender.

A friend recently said to me, "Sean, I just want to find my fairy tale."

I am either the best person in the world to say that to or the worst. The nerd and writer in me loves the idea of truth behind fairy tales. We teach our children some of life's most valuable lessons through the magic of myth. It becomes easy to apply complex concepts to our lives without having to write a two page long blog pontificating on whatever seemed like a good idea at the time. Fairy Tales are, simply put, amazing.

My response was fairly simple. "You have to kiss a lot of princes to find a frog." Before you start calling me out on a mixed metaphor, hear me out. On the surface, this seems backwards. In The Frog Prince, the princess has her options for suitors. She is, after all, a princess. However, she happens upon a frog who insists that he is, in fact, a prince that has been enchanted and requires the kiss of a princess to undo the damage done by a witch's spell. Throughout the story the Frog Prince has to prove his worth to the Princess, until she finally kisses him and he turns into a prince. So in the original story the princess has to kiss the frog to find her prince - why would I suggest that you have to kiss a lot of princes to find a frog? Wouldn't my friend want to settle for a prince?

To understand my statement, you have to understand where I am coming from on Princes and Frogs. What are the traits that make up a prince? How about a frog? Can they be one in the same?

When I think of a prince, the first thought that comes to mind is a man of means. The fairy tales would tell us that he is tall, dark, and handsome. Prince Charming is shown to be a perfect gentleman. By all appearances, he is the perfect man. The problem is that appearances don't always tell the full story. Just as the moral of the Frog Prince is that often things are not as they appear, so is it with the people we see on a daily basis. Just because a person has the physical traits we believe to be attractive, does not mean that they possess the intangibles to treat us as we deserve. In A Game of Thrones Lady Sansa desires nothing more than to marry Prince Joffrey and become his queen. She finds him to be attractive and believes that because of what he possesses, he must be a man of great character. As she soon finds out, he is actually a terror to behold. He would not only not provide for her, but would treat her in such a horrible fashion. That does not mean that every Prince is so conceited. In fact, much like the fairy tale, a prince may also be a frog.

The Frogs of this world rely on their character. They have to use their words to show who they are. For their words to mean anything they must back up what they say with their actions. They may look good, or maybe not. They will generally treat people with respect - and they do not shy away from the fact that they are not perfect. They embrace life and are happy to have what they have. Frogs live. They may not always be comfortable in their skin, because on the inside is a person trying to learn to let themselves out.

I'm not stating that someone should literally go out and keep kissing every person they see until they find what they're looking for, but what I am saying is that your fairy tale exists. Don't ever settle for less than you deserve, and don't turn your back on someone simply because at first glance they don't look like what you're after. Too often we settle because we don't believe that what we want is available to us. By saying that we sell ourselves short.

I have been guilty of settling. One of the hardest lessons for me to learn was that I am good enough not only for myself, but for someone else as well. I let people treat me poorly, at times very poorly, simply because I thought I couldn't do any better. One of the most important steps to falling in love with yourself is accepting that a lot of the situations around us are not healthy. We have to remove ourselves from toxic environments and toxic people to stop the pain. As a paramedic, one of the first things you learn with a Hazardous Materials incident is to remove a person from the things that are causing the problem. Toxic people exist in almost every area of our lives. If you let someone tell you that they are exactly what you need and you won't be able to find any better, you will start to believe it.

The real message here is to continue to believe in yourself. Don't let good looks or a flashy smile distract you from seeing what is on the inside. If you do, you may get caught up in a situation that will only hurt you over time. You are valuable - your dreams can come true. Your fairy tale is waiting - don't ever stop searching until you find it.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Know Fear: Be Courageous, Be Relentless

Mr Han: ..Why? Why do you need to go out there so badly?
Dre Parker: Because I'm still scared. And no matter what happens, tonight, when I leave, I don't want to be scared anymore. --from The Karate Kid (2010)

Is it better to be courageous or fearless? How about relentless or reckless?

To know the answer, you have to know the difference, and why it matters? Every day we face things we should be afraid of - we can choose to face those challenges or we can choose to back away. Our struggles can be physical or internal, but no matter where our fears come from, until we deal with them they are very real.  Character is built and our lives change when we are willing to attack our challengers head on.

What is it to be courageous? One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from Meg Cabot:

"Courage is not the absence of fear but the judgment that something else is more important than fear. The brave may not live forever but the cautious do not live at all. For now you are traveling the road between who you think you are and who you can be."

I really can't explain courage any better than she did. The courageous people in this world are the ones who know fear, but are willing to stand up and act in spite of it. To put it another way, I will steal another quote, this one from Syrio Forel, Arya's 'Dancing Master' in Game of Thrones, "...and there is only one thing we say to Death, 'Not Today.'" Fear is ultimately an emotion that can be both good and bad. It helps us to prepare for a fight or to run from unnecessary danger. This 'Fight or Flight' response is an instinctive reaction to fear. Our senses sharpen, we are able to focus better, our bodies prepare to run - either headlong into danger or away from a threat. The courageous can weigh the risk versus benefit and know when it is best to enter the fray or when it is best to hold fast.

Those who know no fear may initially appear to be brave, but the answer is that they know nothing more than narcissism and hubris. None of us are bulletproof, though the fearless truly care about nothing above themselves. To enter a fight is to seek personal glory, not the most good for the most people.

So what of relentlessness and recklessness? These go hand in hand with their fear facing brethren. Those who are fearless are often also reckless, not worrying about the consequences of their actions, who gets hurt or how. Those who are relentless often know that the odds are stacked against them. They know that there is an inherent risk behind every action, but understanding that somethings in life are worth more than what we stand to lose they press on. Those who are relentless are unyielding when it comes to achieving a goal. These people reach for the stars, never losing sight of their goals. They stand courageously, refusing to give up while their goals remain unmet.

We all have our fears. I'm not talking about things like heights, darkness or spiders (though the latter actually do give me the heebie-jeebies. Seriously. Those things have eight eyes, eight legs, and do arts and crafts with the stuff that comes from their asses). We are afraid of the unknown. One of the most common fears is the fear of the unknown, though we disguise by saying we afraid of the dark or afraid of death. For those of us who are not the most social creatures, we often fear conversations with other people. We fear rejection. We fear failure.

Our fears are based on things we simply are not comfortable with. They can change. Phobias are very capable of evolving. There was a time when I was afraid to go to the gym because I was afraid to have other people see that I was not as strong as they were. I was scared to be judged. My greatest fear was that I may not be accepted. The realization came to me that to be fit, to be in shape was more important than being accepted or not.

To be better, we all must be courageous. Our goals should seem in some ways insurmountable, but so worth it that we are willing to try anyways. I have some huge goals in life, some that scare me - and I may never accomplish (can anyone say Ironman?). However the only thing I have to fear is simply not knowing whether or not I will ever be physically strong enough to accomplish them. Trying to accomplish those goals will only make me stronger, and that is a risk I am more than willing to take.

I wear my heart on my sleeve, something that few people are so willing to do. In many areas of my life I have come so far and made so many advances. Things that terrified me a year ago drive me today. My fears have grown and changed to the point that my greatest fear is being stuck in neutral. If I am sitting in this same place in life a year ago with nothing to show for it, then I have failed. However, if I take risks today to advance my life tomorrow then there is no such thing as failure. When I look at the things that scare me, I simply must say, "Not today," and push on for a better tomorrow.

Be courageous and face your fears. Be relentless, and whatever today's outcome - do it again tomorrow.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

As You Wish: Tell Yourself How You Really Feel

I'm a sucker for a good line. Sometimes the most effective way of saying something is by not saying it at all. As I was trying to come up with a topic to write about today, I somehow found myself thinking of The Princess Bride and Wesley's infamous three words, "As you wish." Other similar references came to mind, Han Solo's, "I know'" and Ygritte telling Jon,"You know nothing, Jon Snow." Literature is rife with people saying so much by saying so little. In all three of these cases, the character is ultimately saying, "I love you," by not saying it.

The wheels started turning - I have conversations with people almost every day and they want to know what my motivation was, or how I was able to get started. Most people want to know how I can generally stay positive. Some of the answers are fairly easy. If you see results, you keep doing it. The real question isn't how I keep positive. Like everyone else, I have my bad days, weeks and months. My daily battle is to somehow find the motivation to keep going. People know that I have learned to love myself, some people would say that has come to an almost narcissistic fault, but I disagree. I have learned to believe in myself and simply enjoy the person that I am becoming.

One of the keys behind this was to really learn to listen to myself. We have no greater enemy than ourselves. Every day we send ourselves messages. We spend more time berating ourselves and tearing ourselves down. We generally don't walking around saying, "Me, I hate you." That's not to say that I've never felt that I have hated myself, but most of us can recognize that those self-pity parties are just that and get beyond it easily enough. I believe that the truly damaging words are the words we leave unsaid.

What changes have we truly made if we still tell ourselves that we can't accomplish a goal? About a year ago I stepped out of my sister's door to see if I could simply jog for half an hour, a week later I ran my first 5k, and by the end of the year I had run multiple races. I had always said that I couldn't run  three miles. I told myself that I was not an athlete and never would be able to accomplish any of those physical goals. There was always a hidden message. How could I believe in myself? The most important person in my world, me, was continuously saying that I wouldn't be able to achieve fitness.

The hidden message was the most damaging. Every time I said that I was incapable of something, or not good enough for another person, or any number of other things I told myself, I was saying that I didn't like myself. I wanted other people to believe in me. I could offer up a fairly impressive curriculum vitae of my accomplishments and a creative dossier, but I didn't believe a word of it myself. A salesman has to convince other people to believe in their product, but I didn't believe in the product I was trying to sell.

The key was to stop saying the destructive words. There was no better love note that I could have written to myself than to say I believe. Walking up to a barbell was no longer a scary feat. Understanding that attempting something new was the victory became key. I no longer had to fear failure, because a missed rep or a slow run was a victory in itself. I started taking pride in me, and the messages changed. I stopped saying that I couldn't run a race, and got excited. Knowing what I was going to accomplish was motivation. I fell in love with myself.

The first message was to tell the person who kept saying that I couldn't or wouldn't, "You know nothing." I then worked to change my mind, and much like Jon Snow, I gave myself over to my more basic instincts and challenged everything I thought about myself. I said that I was going to be fit, and my heart responded with, "As you wish." Then one day I looked in the mirror and I said, "I really like who that guy is becoming."

"I know."

Monday, February 25, 2013

Twists and Turns: The Journey Changes and the Plot Thickens

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Lao-Tzu

When I started this blog a few months ago, I had a plan. I knew the story I intended to tell. My plans were so well laid that I had an outline for the first few months - the intention was to track my improvements in the gym and relate them to a cleaner lifestyle. The road map was laid out and my blogging GPS was set. Then all hell broke loose.

Nothing ensures getting completely off track more than planning a course. There is no way to know exactly where our next moment will take us. We do our best to guide our lives in a set direction. Then life happens. Things get in our way, we get thrown off track - our plans get set by the wayside, and we often lose sight of a goal.

I have said more than once that nothing has been harder than resting. Being injured took me off of my course. My time in the gym was cut dramatically. Cleaning up my diet became less of a priority. At first I thought that I had been blown completely off course. It felt at times that I would never be able to work out to capacity again. My eyes fell away from the goal. Setting new goals became a chore and my motivation faltered. Then a funny thing happened on my way to the pity party.

The beast turned back on. My body said 'Go!' My mind found focus. I managed to find a way to take hold of my vision, and realize that my journey may not follow the course I had planned. The elements may be ever changing. The goals are still there. There are many ways to reach a destination, and sometimes the scenic route is the most rewarding. This journey started out very aggressive. Too aggressive, in fact, because I put too much focus on proving a point, and not enough on slow and steady progress. I learned a painful and valuable lesson. There were wounds I had to lick. It was time to stand up, dust myself off and swallow my pride.

When I stood up and took stock of where I was, I realized that even though I was not where I expected to me, I was still on a path. And that path was still, somehow, perhaps even miraculously, closer to my goal. That's the glory of an adventure - you never know exactly where it will take you. While I started out thinking that this would be a linear journey with easily definable lessons, it has actually been a pilgrimage. This has been a journey of enlightenment.

I kept looking towards a goal, saying that when I accomplished this goal or that goal that I would be happy. Somehow I forgot to take stock of what I had already done. My hard work had already paid off, the problem was that I had become so self absorbed in the future that I failed to live in the present. The last several weeks have allowed me to reflect back on myself. My motivation doesn't just come from a drive to get to my goal, but also from a knowledge of where I have been.

Many people ask me what drives me, how do I continue to press on towards my goals and remain motivated? Obviously I want to see what I am capable of doing. Everyone wants to see what they can accomplish. From the beginning, over a year ago, I said that I wanted to be more fit than I ever have been. The reason for that goal was that it is never static. I can always continue to push myself to be more fit. It also is a goal that takes the moment constantly in to account. When I began The Primal Journey, I started setting very specific goals.

So what is the problem with such a specific goal? It is easy to lose sight of, especially when something takes you off your designated path. In my opinion, that may be the largest reason so many diet plans or exercise programs fail - we lose sight of our day to day progress and our motivation falls off.

I have been blessed with the opportunity to reflect on what I have accomplished and where I am headed. My journey ended up taking a turn that I did not intend, but that put me precisely where I needed to be. After taking stock of where my life has come, I realize that the changes I have gone through are real. This is permanent, and that is the newest mark of fitness - the physical change has been followed up by mental change. Realizing that my very soul has changed helped me to make the emotional changes I have so sorely needed.

My life is so much different because of the choices I have made. Things are happening. I have found parts of myself that were lost at various times and through various struggles. Every day holds some surprise, some unexpected moment that reminds me that this journey has been worth the struggle.

I have to thank everyone who has accompanied me this far. Whether it be lifelong friends, family, Crossfit friends, theatre friends, or people who just entered my life for a moment - if I have shared a step in this journey with you, then you are a part of this victory. This journey continues. I look forward to every step, and I am excited to see where it goes. There is no telling what happens next, nor who will be a part of the chapters to come. All I know is that I expect more good to come. There are no misteps, no false starts - just unexpected turns along the way.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Success: Failure With More Determination

“The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand.” -- Vince Lombardi

The greatest single challenge I have faced this year is knowing that the best thing I can do for my health is to rest. I spent a year working as hard as my body could go. I reached new heights and ascended to peaks I never thought I could. This came at a price that I was more than willing to pay. Sweat, blood, time and determination allowed me to attain goals previously unreachable. Everything came screeching to a halt with an injury that took the wind from my sails and left me watching from the sidelines.

The concept of rest, especially extended rest, seems counter intuitive after going so hard for so long. My initial knee-jerk reaction after getting injured was that maybe such a hard program may not be best for me. The possibility for injury is high. I am not getting any younger. I cannot afford an injury serious enough to keep me away from work. My largest fitness goals are in the endurance realm, so lifting weights and intense quick workouts don't always seem the best. I was down. I was out. Physically I had been removed from the game, but even worse, mentally I was unsure as to whether or not I could play again.

It took a few weeks, but after returning to the gym and doing a scaled down workout, I realized that I am, for the first time in my life, an athlete. While many athlete's professional careers may end with an injury, almost all of them will return from injury. Suddenly I knew that I could return from this injury and my outlook began to improve, but I was anything but positive. I have battled with one of my old demons, depression, more over the last month than I have in at least a year. I had lost my physical outlet more mental and emotional stress.

Over the last three weeks I have been able to get back to the gym twice a week. My body hurts, my hip fights me, and my recovery times are lengthened. Even those two trips to the gym a week have helped me to restore my optimism and energy levels. The depression that stood before me has weakened. The change, that mental change, is perhaps the most remarkable change I have seen. This week I have a renewed sense of vigor. My determination is strengthened. In the past I would have been beaten up, thrown in the towel, and looked for some new task or goal to accomplish. Now my goal is to come storming back, stronger and more determined than ever before.

Not to sound cliche, but for the first time in my life I understand the concept of 'The Eye of the Tiger.' I have learned that the key is determination. My goal is to set my sights on something larger than I have accomplished before and chase after it until I not only reach it, but I have defeated it.

I started this Blog with the intention of talking solely about diet changes, and how those helped improve my physical well being, but also my performance in the gym. The funny thing about a journey is that when you set foot on the road you may not always see the route to your destination. There will be losses, there will be victories, there will be roadblocks and detours. These don't exist to stop us, but to allow us to see the world and the challenges before us in a different light. There is more than one way to reach your goal. Setbacks help us to see a different way. We come to know our strengths through our failures.

Success is earned. No man who is a success became that way through laziness. No great athlete became that way without knowing the cost. Every great composer had to learn the theory behind his music. Master painters all had a first brush stroke and I will wager that all of them ruined more than one canvas. Steely eyed determination keeps every master engrossed in his work. The same applies for all of us, the regular guys. I am not likely to ever compete in the Crossfit games. I will never be invited to run in the Toughest Mudder, and will almost certainly never compete in the Kona Ironman. I can be the best version of myself in every WOD I complete. That orange headband will be well earned, and the mud will feel great, and whatever length I go to in the triathlon world will be a victory in and of itself.

Victory is never about being the best, it's about trying your hardest. You have to learn to push your body to new limits, and to do that you need determination in your heart and a soul hardened for battle. This is the key to success. Only when you learn to measure success solely against yourself will you truly succeed. Do not be afraid of failure, because you can only defeat yourself when you have found your limit, and having found it, walk back up to that place, try again, and do better than you could before.